Five minutes remained and the wind appeared the have deserted the Republic of Ireland’s sails. They had put in a spirited performance against the mighty and cunning Italians, yet their tiring legs appeared to be floundering.
They had battled hard and been denied a decent shout for a penalty against one of the stingiest defences in world football. But with clock ticking fast they were heading home from Euro 2016.
Then a chance. It fell to substitute Wes Hoolahan, one on one with the goalkeeper but he dragged his shot into the clutches of Salvatore Sirigu.
Thankfully for Hoolahan there was to be another opportunity, and less than a minute later he whipped a peach of a ball into the heart of the Italian penalty area.
There was his Norwich City teammate Robbie Brady flying at the ball like a superhero without the cape. He flung himself at the inviting cross and powered a header firmly into clutches Italy's net. 1-0 Ireland- game, set and match to the Green Army.
Martin O’Neil celebrated euphorically, for now the Republic will face the hosts France on Monday afternoon after finishing third in Group E.
Ireland start on the front foot
It was known before kick-off that Antonio Conte planned to make changes, and the Italian manger stayed true to his word by making eight alterations from the side which beat Sweden last time out.
In contrast O’Neil made three changes following Ireland’s 3-0 defeat to Belgium on Saturday, when they spent the majority of the game on the back foot. However on this occasion they started with purpose and drive from the word go.
A change of formation to what, for the most part, looked like a traditional 4-4-2, saw Daryl Murphy partner Shane Long upfront.
Long spent the majority of the Belgium game being battered about from centre back to centre back with little support. However Murphy’s physical presence saw the Ipswich man hold the ball up well and bring others into the game effectively when he received possession.
Italy remain strong at the back
Ireland delivered some decent crosses into the Italian’s penalty area where, as expected, the men in blue defended aggressively to keep the Green Army at bay.
Giorgio Chiellini was rested however his Juventus colleagues Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci remained in the side and were joined by West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna in a trademark Italian back three.
As expected Italy’s defence has been their bedrock in this tournament and they hadn’t conceded a goal in their opening two games.
That nearly changed on nine minutes, however, when Jeff Hendrick wriggled into shooting position and stuck a shot inches wide of Sirigu’s post.
Ireland continued to have the better of possession, while James McClean appeared extremely lively and put in an energetic shift on the left side of midfield.
O’Neil’s side were also a threat from set plays, with centre back Shane Duffy getting on the end of a number of corners. Minutes after Murphy had headed an effort over the bar, Duffy connected well with one of Brady’s in-swingers, however Sirigu tipped the ball over.
Italy came close to opening the scoring against the run of play three minutes before half time, but Ciro Immobile flashed his shot wide.
McClean penalty appeal turned down
Then came the most contentious moment of the first half.
Ireland felt they had a strong appeal for penalty seconds before the interval when McClean received possession inside the penalty area and shaped up to shoot. Federico Bernardeschi had lost his man and appeared to bundle into the back of the Ireland winger. Replays showed the Italian’s foot touched a fraction of the ball but the spot kick could easily have been given.
Ireland continued to go for it after the break; however their final delivery often let them down.
Italy almost delivered a knock-out blow to the Irish’s hopes when Simone Zaza connected well with a volley which looped onto the top of Darren Randolph’s net.
Both full backs continued to fly forward for the men in green and on 56 minutes Thiago Motta carelessly gave the ball away to Séamus Coleman, whose shot was blocked by Ogbonna.
The chance appeared to be slipping away until a dramatic final few minutes and Brady’s heroic intervention.
Hoolahan was gifted possession in an attacking position, finding himself through on goal, but he fluffed his lines, shooting straight at Sirigu.
With Irish heads still in hands, the playmaker redeemed himself less than a minute later, crossing for Brady, who beat Sirigu to the ball to sign off a historic night.